The Dialectic of Tolerance

Bryant William Sculos I Politics & Government I Analysis I September 1, 2017

Until the Right-and liberals-are going to defend the free speech rights of everyone, until they are going to put themselves on the line to promote solidaristic tolerance of others whom they "disagree with," they do not deserve to utter the words free speech, tolerance, or persecution (but sure, they have "the right to"). And the Left must continue to refuse to let them get away with it.

We cannot be afraid of being perceived as intolerant. We are intolerant. We do not tolerate hatred. We do not tolerate repression or oppression. We do not tolerate bigotry, racism, or cisheterosexism. We are also aware that letting any government or unaccountable body like a university board of trustees-never mind obscenely corrupt, undemocratic ones-determine what is tolerable and what is not, is extremely problematic-and as of now must also be resisted. It is a tight rope to walk, but it is one we must walk.

This is the internal contradictory nature of universal tolerance. It is impossible to defend universal, emancipatory tolerance without asserting directly that whatsoever undermines tolerance must not be tolerates. What form this intolerance takes should and must be democratically debated and contested.

Counterrevolutionary (In)Tolerance

I am not talking about legality here though. I am talking about the relationship between the principles of free speech and tolerance, which should (and are) central to any notion of socialism from below, and the contemporary reactionary practices covered in the so-called debates around free speech and tolerance in the US (and somewhat in the UK and Europe, specifically around the "no-platform" policies pursued in many universities).

Defending a white supremacist's right to speak at a university while decrying protesters of that speech is a hypocrisy so ripe that it is literally rotten. That is, it is no defense of tolerance nor is it a defense of free speech. It is a reactionary silencing portrayed as a neutral defense of freedom and toleration. "Of course I don't agree with the white supremacist, but those protesters are hypocritical and violating the free speech of others. The protesters are the ones being intolerant of views they disagree with!" Then when controversial professors on the left are targeted for their speech, surely the outrage is the same, right? Right? Righ....Wrong.

Protesting is a form of free speech. Opposing intolerance is rooted in tolerance. In fact, tolerance would be incomprehensible without this element. Actively battling against the comprehensively intolerable, actions and kinds of speech that directly threaten vulnerable peoples' lives, is a virtuous, solidaristic defense of freedom. Openly advocating exclusionary, bigoted politics and repressive structural (and inevitably direct) violence might be legal, but it is certainly not any kind of freedom worthy of the name, and it is certainly not something worthy of toleration-at least so long as those who are targets of such speech are not guaranteed the right to openly oppose that exclusionary bigotry and violence-advocacy.

This is what my co-author Prof. Sean Noah Walsh and I were getting at in our 2016 New Political Science article "The Counterrevolutionary Campus" applying philosopher and social critic Herbert Marcuse's concepts of repressive tolerance and liberating tolerance to the student protest movements (primarily on college campuses and associated with Black Lives Matter and Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Against Israel [BDS]). [1]

Here, put very simply, we argued that right-wing claims of having had their right to free speech violated or that they are experiencing intolerance at the hands of activists who were organizing and protesting against intolerance, exclusion, inequality, and oppression, were not actually attempting to defend the principles of free speech and tolerance. The counterrevolutionary Right was deploying these claims to silence those they didn't want to hear from, those whom they want(ed) society to remain intolerant of. We argued that Marcuse was right in the 60s and his argument is still applicable today: the most prominent arguments about free speech and tolerance, predominantly by the Right, are exemplary forms of repression and oppression-not freedom.

In his March 2016 National Review article, Fred Bauer took umbrage with our argument, which he seemingly willfully misinterpreted (as he has done of Marcuse's work in the past) in his article condemning the Middlebury College protests against racist pseudo-intellectual Charles Murray. Bauer writes:

"Sculos and Walsh try to discount the anti-liberal implications of this viewpoint by arguing that Marcuse here is calling for the repression only of 'those thoughts and words that promote destruction, bigotry, racism and deprivation. Any science repressed is that which is geared toward developing technologies of war, environmental catastrophe and human exploitation.' However, Marcuse's criteria for repression may be far broader, and far more open to abuse, than Sculos and Walsh might think. After all, the question of which 'thoughts and words' really promote 'destruction, bigotry, racism and deprivation' is itself a topic for debate."

Bauer is not wrong that there are certain aspects of discussions about free speech and tolerance that are genuinely up for debate, but just because there is some room for debate does not mean that all sides of the debate are equally viable or worth seriously considering. Furthermore, Bauer refuses to take the central aspect of our argument seriously: that the Right deploys free speech and tolerance claims in order to silence those groups who are most often targeted by their vitriol and discriminatory policy agenda; that they have very little interest in defending the free speech of those they disagree with.

The beauty of Marcuse's work on repressive tolerance [2], that those like Bauer so often overlook or perhaps just politically disagree with, is its admittedly controversial conclusion that in situations where 'tolerance' produces more intolerance, we need a new notion of tolerance that refuses to tolerate the silencing of systematically oppressed peoples and views.

It is not a neutral conception of tolerance at all, and even a superficial reading of Mill's On Liberty actually supports our position (and Marcuse's). Mill's liberal understanding of tolerance is justified based on the results of tolerance--that in tolerating all view points the more tolerant views will eventually win, and society will progress. In our and Marcuse's evaluation, that progress is not occurring, and therefore the notion of tolerance lacks a coherent justification-under these specific circumstances. To put it very simply, we are defending a position that says: We value tolerance, and until society is systematically tolerant, we need a different conception of tolerance in-place that prevents the spread-and dominance-of intolerant ideas.

It is not, as Bauer suggests, that I am unaware of the potential for abuse of this position by so-called "mandarins" (and if such abuse occurred, I would be among the first to speak out against it), but instead I am willing to risk the abuse of our position, in principle, to argue against the existing abuse by the Right of the liberal notion of tolerance-seemingly deployed only when it supports their desire to defend their own intolerance. The abuse of tolerance (by the Right) is already occurring, so, there is not much in the application of the liberal position to defend at the moment (besides Mill's initial argument that tolerance should serve Progress-which, it is worth noting, led him to defend socialism towards the end of his life).[3]

Towards a Socialist Tolerance

Again, legal interpretations aside, we must look at the hypocrisy of claiming to defend free speech and tolerance while actively defending the rights and freedoms of those who want more and greater exclusion and repression in our world. We must be willing to accept the very real possibility that hypocritical defenses of free speech and tolerance are actually more dangerous to these concepts and the oppressed peoples these principles are supposed to protect, than a curtailment of the "freedoms" of others that are called precisely that.

It is not just the Right that has a problem with Marcuse's approach to tolerance though. Renowned socialist Hal Draper, writing in 1968 for the Independent Socialist, excoriated Marcuse's supposed anti-democratic elitism, imploring the radical left to avoid following Marcuse's guidance:

"Revolutionary socialists…want to push to the limit all the presuppositions and practices of the fullest democratic involvement of the greatest mass of people. To the limit: that is, all the way. No progressive social transformation is possible except insofar as the largest mass of plain people from way below in society start moving. And this movement both requires, and also helps to bring about, the fullest opening-up of society to democratic controls from below not their further restriction. It means the breaking up of anti-democratic limitations and restrictions. It means the greater unleashing of new initiatives from below. In other words, it means the exact opposite of Marcuseism." [4]

Draper's point here is only wrong insofar as he perceived that Marcuse would have fundamentally disagreed with him. Against Draper's suggestion that Marcuse desired some kind of elitist group to determine what should be tolerable and what should not be, Marcuse states quite clearly that he has little faith that there is an existing institution or coterie that could do so effectively, justly, and democratically. [5] This takes nothing away from his point about the general tendency of demands for tolerance and free speech to be deployed in defense of intolerable, counterrevolutionary positions-and the importance for the Left to take this reality seriously.

My goal here is not mainly to defend Marcuse from misreadings, but instead to mobilize the core of his argument for what I perceive to be its original purpose and contemporary value: we must comprehensively refuse to concede ground to the right-wing establishment when it comes to defending the best versions of free speech and democratic tolerance. We must be clear-eyed, nuanced realists whilst also promoting a radically reimagined future for ourselves and future generations. Idealist notions of the purity of free speech and tolerance have yet to provide an adequate basis for radical Left politics, and there is little reason to think this is going to change anytime soon.

What I am not advocating here is that the Left abandon its defense of free speech or tolerance. In fact, I am arguing the opposite. However, history has shown us often enough that liberal and right-wing defenses of free speech and tolerance effectively protect the most reactionary forces in our societies, not the people who are fighting to overcome those forces. The Left needs to be strategically clearer and more open about this fact in order to insulate the principles of freedom of speech and tolerance from their abusers. In other words, the Left must aggressively defend democratized, emancipatory conceptions of tolerance and free speech-before these ideas have lost all practical meaning.

Bryant William Sculos, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at The Amherst Program in Critical Theory, adjunct professor at Florida International University, contributing writer for the Hampton Institute, and Politics of Culture section editor for Class, Race and Corporate Power.


[1] B.W. Sculos & S.N. Walsh, "The Counterrevolution Campus: Herbert Marcuse and the Suppression of Student Protest Movements," New Political Science (Dec. 2016), pp. 516-532.

[2] Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance," in Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, and Herbert Marcuse (eds),A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).

[3] See John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, pp. 1-115 and Mill's Chapters on Socialism, pp. 221-279 in Stefan Collini (ed.), On Liberty and Other Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[4] Hal Draper, "Free Speech and Political Struggle" in Independent Socialist (April 1969), pp. 12-16.

[5] Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance," pp. 81-83.